Art: About Faces

  • Harriet Modler

While it may be true that teenage girls are prone to overdramatizing their lives, England’s Princess Elizabeth had good reason to fret during her teen years. In 1547, at age 13, Elizabeth became an orphan and third in line to the throne with the death of her father, King Henry VIII, who 11 years earlier had ordered the beheading of her mother, Anne Boleyn, on dubious charges of adultery, incest, and bewitching the king into marriage. Edward VI, her sickly half brother, was king, and Mary, Elizabeth’s Catholic half sister, was chosen by Henry to be Edward’s successor.

A recently discovered painting of Elizabeth, which could have been painted in 1548, the year she turned 15, shows a girl with an unflinching gaze and an air of confidence that belie her circumstances. Philip Mould, the 45-year-old founder of London’s Historical Portraits gallery, says the painting may have been meant for use in marriage negotiations, or it could have been intended to encourage Elizabeth’s supporters, who would have viewed the prayer book in her long, slim fingers as a Protestant volume. “It was a cauldron of intrigue in those days,” says Mould. “So much was a question of betting on the right house.”

While Mould cautions against interpreting a 16th-century painting from a modern perspective, he believes that even then, Elizabeth understood the importance of controlling her image. “The portrait has a solemnity and confidence that you don’t find in pictures of young ladies from the 16th century,” he says. “There’s a seriousness about the portrait that is notable.” Mould plans to bring the freshly restored artwork to the Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair (which takes place from June 15 through 21 in London), where he will offer it for about $1 million.

Mould’s 20-year-old gallery specializes in British and American portraits from the 16th through 19th centuries. His discoveries include the only authenticated painting of Prince Arthur, elder brother of King Henry VIII, and the earliest known large-scale work by Thomas Gainsborough, a 5-by-6-foot portrait of a brother and sister that now hangs in Gainsborough’s House, a museum in Suffolk, England. Portraits such as these and the one of Elizabeth fascinate Mould because of what they can reveal about their subjects. “The purpose of a portrait is not just to extrapolate a sweet face from the subject, but also the virtues and attributes that solidify their persona,” he says. “A good portrait painter can bring to bear substantial insights about the human condition.”

One of Mould’s favorite portraits is by William Hogarth, who enjoyed little success as a portraitist because of his satirical streak. Mould characterizes the image, which Hogarth painted in the 1730s, as a “ruthlessly honest portrait of a porcine-faced woman.” The work was among a cache of more than 300 paintings that Mould examined in Vermont in the early 1990s; the collector ultimately sold several of those paintings through Mould, but he kept that Hogarth.

Mould is convinced that the artist was not mocking his subject. “I think she’s a member of his family, because there’s a degree of affection and honesty in the portrait, and an even greater degree of intimacy than a painter normally enjoys with a sitter,” he says. “It feels as though she didn’t have to pay for it.”

This recently discovered portrait of England’s Princess Elizabeth will appear in Mould’s booth at a London fair in June.

Historical Portraits,
+44.207.499.6818,
www.historicalportraits.com

Photo by Richard P. Goodbody Inc.
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